Over Memorial Day weekend I started re-reading John Helyar’s “Lords of the Realm.” I read it a couple summers ago to get a better understanding of the history of labor relations in baseball, but I wanted to revisit it given the recent standoff between players and owners as they attempt to negotiate what baseball might look like in 2020 on the eve of the next Collective Bargaining Agreement. I kept thinking about a section from the first chapter yesterday as I read MLB’s attempt to divide the union between the players who have signed the most lucrative contracts and the majority who make something closer to the league minimum:
Interestingly, when it came to salary disputes, popular sympathy was almost always with the owners. Fans and writers saw it as a privilege for a man to play ball for a living. When Joe DiMaggio held out in 1938, after his first big season, for $40,000, the press scalded him for not accepting the proffered $25,000. The writers agreed with the Yankees owner, Colonel Jacob Ruppert: “Why, $25,000 is enough to make him financially independent for the rest of his life.”
That strategy of division — first between fans and players and now between the players who have received large paydays and those who have not — is not an accident. It is a time honored strategy that the elite use to rule. Specifically, the term “divide and rule” or “divide and conquer” appears all over literature about colonization and controlling populations. It is not surprising that MLB’s 30 owners would seek an advantage in bargaining by playing on the sympathies of fans who want baseball to return, or trying to drive a wedge between different interest groups in the MLBPA. It is a little surprising that they would be so egregiously transparent about it.
My hunch is that MLB knows this proposal will not pass, but they are counting on a few key elements as they float a trial balloon so they can cry poor at the bargaining table in December 2021.
First, capitalizing on the desperation of fans. I can’t even tell you how much I would love to tune out from pandemic life for a few hours with Cubs baseball each day. I don’t even think I realized how much I missed it emotionally until I broke into tears listening to new Cubs organist John Benedeck play the Lowrey Organ a couple of Fridays ago. And it would be easy to just ask the players to sacrifice this time. After all, everyone is taking a hit, why can’t they?
The thing is, the players have already agreed to take a hit. They agreed to pro-rated salaries back in March. MLB moved the goalposts here, not the players. Players didn’t get bonuses when baseball made record profits as the portion of revenue that went to salaries shrunk over the last five years, why should they take a bigger hit now?
Second, I’ve already discussed the ways crises are leveraged to mainstream unpopular proposals when everyone is just too tired to pay attention to the finer details a couple of times now. MLB and the owners know their player pay proposal is unpopular and outrageous, they are counting on you being too exhausted to care while they take advantage of this crisis to solidify more favorable structures for baseball owners in the long term. Jon Hegglund captured the dynamic perfectly in this piece for Baseball Prospectus, emphasis mine:
If you polled owners and league representatives about whether or not they’re happy about the coronavirus crisis, you would of course get a unanimous response in the negative. Nobody, rich or poor, wanted a pandemic. Owners stand to take a hit from lost gate receipts and other game-day revenues. Given, however, that the profitability of major-league teams has doubled in the last fifteen years, and that even baseball’s poorest teams have a market valuation north of a billion dollars, baseball’s owners are better-positioned to absorb this loss than their players and other employees. While the party line from the Commissioner’s Office and teams has been one of panic over lost revenues, this tone obscures the fact that, even if teams lose money in the short term, acts of support for workers and goodwill toward suffering communities are not going to bankrupt the enterprise.
I want to pause here for a minute because part of what always gets lost in these conversations is the difference in magnitude between millions and billions. It’s another element of the debate that owners use to deliberately obfuscate the terms of the encounter. After all, most of us are no where near millionaires, let alone billionaires. Any of the salaries Al highlighted in his earlier piece look pretty good relative to our current situations, even before staring down the barrel of Great Depression II. But magnitude matters here, so let’s evaluate just how much more money the owners have than even the highest paid player, Mike Trout:
As Al said earlier, players have a finite amount of time to capitalize on their baseball talent with large contracts. Is there really anyone on this blog that thinks Anthony Rizzo should take a 79.2 percent pay cut on what we already know was a team friendly deal?
Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich of the Athletic reported:
“I have never seen a collective response like I’m seeing today from the players,” one agent said. “They are livid.”
Players should be livid, and fans who love the game should join them in their outrage. This isn’t a deal designed to get the nation’s pastime back in a time of national crisis, it’s a deal designed to sow divisions in the players’ union and between fans and baseball players so that 30 MLB owners can reset the terms of the Collective Bargaining Agreement in 18 months.